The human animal, an amazing creation

By Tom Putnam | Jun 16, 2010

Our world today is filled by a media obsessed with gossip and scandal. Western democracies do not seem able to convey the benefits of that form of government and freedoms to many countries in the East. There appears to be a continuing rivalry between the world's great religions. Harnessing the power of the atom seems more of a weapon's threat than a peaceful resource for energy. Many of our citizens are facing economic turmoil or its threat. Yes, sports -- both school and professional -- do offer avenues of temporary escape from life's never ending pressures.

Recently, my wife and I went out to dinner with a good friend and then to the Rockport Opera House for an evening performance produced by Bay Chamber Concerts. We were looking forward to a relaxing end to the day. That Bay Chamber Concerts program at the Rockport Opera House turned out to be an out of body experience for the entire audience.

Jonathan Biss was the featured and only musician that evening. That means he was alone, by himself, on the stage. Oh yes, there was the concert grand piano that served as his instrument. There was no printed score. His entire program came from within. The audience became engulfed, piece after piece, in music that was ethereal, exquisite and eternal. And it was all created by a human being.

On Biss' blog of July 20, 2007 (, he said he had recently been asked the following question: "Which kind of musician do you consider yourself -- an emotional one or a cerebral one?" His response was, "To any piece of music, my response has to be an emotional one -- I'd never play it otherwise. Understanding is useful -- necessary, even -- to any successful performance, but the urge -- the need -- to play comes straight from the heart." That was what made his performance so out of body that Saturday evening. Yes, his brain and countless years of practice had given him complete control of his arms, hands and fingers. The entire performance was clean and pristine. The music flowed from his mind through his body and into the piano; and the results were thrilling and compelling to the audience's ear. It lifted each one of us out of our daily lives and into an ethereal zone of pure enjoyment. When one watched the man, his fingers were all over the keyboard and each finger was nuanced in its motion and resulting tone.

As I sat with my wife, surrounded by listening friends, my thoughts echoed back to my youth. Music was very big on my mother's side of our family. One of my aunts was a concert pianist. Another, and much more fun, was able to obtain an old Wurlitzer movie house organ for her home. She had a grand piano connected to the organ's keyboard, and could play both instruments simultaneously. Best of all, she was a jazz organist. She was truly fun to be with.

Genetically inspired, I started taking piano lessons when I was 10 years old (four years later than Biss). At a recital a few years later, my piece was Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee." I had worked very hard on it for weeks, but fouled up halfway through my recital performance. "Oops, I made a mistake," I exclaimed, and stopped playing. The audience -- parents and other students -- laughed politely. I couldn't leave it there, so I picked up again and raced to the finish. There was polite applause at the end and I crept back to my seat in the audience.

As I listened to Biss and the astonishing command that he had of that keyboard, I was transported into another world of sheer emotional beauty. I thought: this experience is produced by a human being. It was mesmerizing and ethereal. Biss was cerebral, which permitted him to be emotional.

The effect on the audience was ecstasy and they arose en mass to reward him with applause.

On the drive home, all I could think of was that a human being had created that memorable evening. He had arrived on the stage dressed in a black suit and shirt with a gray fore-in-hand tie. He is entering his 30th year and is quite tall and lean. There was an assurance about him but also humility. He won the Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award about a decade ago. Since that time he has continued to grow and enjoys a flourishing international reputation in North America and in Europe. He is young and his future is ahead of him. His ability to take notes a composer has placed on a sheet of paper, mechanically put them through a piano keyboard, whose hammers strike the strings with sublime nuance, and then have the music waft from the instrument and envelope the audience, makes Jonathan Biss a sublime creation. We all were privileged to hear him and be transported by him to another place.

Yes, the human animal is an awesome creation.

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